Jessica wants to be with Jonathan… forever. But is Elizabeth strong enough to stop a creature of the night?
Today’s Great Literature entry looks at the 128th instalment in the Sweet Valley High series, Kiss of a Killer by Kate William. It’s the one with a vampire in it. The concept of “jumping the shark” is now well known, but I think “adding a vampire” should be added to the artistic lexicon.
I first heard about this book at the Paranormal Fiction and Romance Forum at Dymocks, and was very keen to read it. I hadn’t expected it to be so hard to find a copy – I’m sure there’s a mathematical formula that explains why you can find any Sweet Valley High book in any op-shop, but a specific Sweet Valley High book can only be found in a single library in a small town near Ballarat.
For those of us who weren’t teenage girls in the eighties or nineties, let’s start with a quick recap of the Sweet Valley High books. Created in 1983 by Francine Pascal, Sweet Valley High followed the lives of Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield, teenage twins who attend high school in Sweet Valley, California. There were 152 books in the main series, and many more in the numerous spin-off series including Sweet Valley Kids, Sweet Valley Junior High, Sweet Valley Senior Year, Sweet Valley University and Team Sweet Valley. A spin-off TV show ran from 1994 to 1997.
The story of Kiss Of A Killer is fairly simple, and I should point out that if you read on there will be spoilers. Major spoilers. I am going to tell you everything about this book, including the end. So if you were planning to read an obscure book for teenage girls that was published twelve years ago but just hadn’t got around to it yet, look away now.
So, to the plot: future-trophy-wife Jessica is dating future-emo-kid Jonathan, much to the ongoing annoyance of future-angry-lesbian Elizabeth. At a party at Jonathan‘s house, Katrina Sutton is found dead. Luckily she’s only someone’s cousin so no-one is too upset, but the town’s death toll keeps rising. Elizabeth is suspicious of Jonathan – after all, he’s not blonde. Eventually she comes to the conclusion that Jonathan is a vampire.
Even though we know Jonathan is a vampire, Elizabeth‘s “proof” seems astonishingly flimsy – he has a similar name to a student from the 1930s, he’s wearing the same ring as his “ancestor” in a painting, he owns some books about vampires and no-one has any photos of him. Surprisingly, even the fact that he wanders around in direct sunlight is used as evidence against him. It’s easy to see an alternate reading of Kiss Of A Killer in which the paranoia and bigotry of small-town America erupts into violence against a young man who doesn’t fit the ways of the majority. After all, this is a world where everyone is either blonde or wants to be, and characters say things like “We have year-round sunshine and gorgeous beaches”, and “I don’t think black hair would go with your skin tone or your personality”.
I kept waiting for the twist in Kiss Of A Killer – perhaps Jonathan wasn’t a vampire, or that he wasn’t the vampire doing all the killing – but no. This is a story that plods from point A to point B, and it’s hardly an express ride – on page 4 a body is found, drained of blood and with punctures in the neck. On page 116 Elizabeth thinks it might be a vampire! The girls aren’t exactly bright.
Admittedly the girls do have more important things on their minds than Sweet Valley‘s rising body count – important things like boys and clothes. The main sub-plot is about how Elizabeth used to go out with Todd, but he dumped her when he found her cheating on him with Joey Mason at Camp Echo Mountain in Montana. Now he’s thinking about forgiving her. Curiously, it never occurs to Elizabeth that she should be the one apologising to Todd for her behaviour – she’s both self-centred and astonishingly passive, letting the men in her life make all her decisions. In the end it comes down to whether Todd can forgive her, or if Joey will simply get sick of her being such a wet blanket and dump her (as it goes, both these things happen).
Being more than a hundred books into the series means the girls have a lot of back-story, which tends to come out in clumsy exchanges like this moment with their parents:
“Your recklessness amazes me, Jessica. There’s a serial killer on the loose! And you know how we feel about motorcycles. Have you forgotten that your cousin Rexy was killed in a motorcycle crash? And that Elizabeth nearly died in one too?”
Being a cousin in the world of Sweet Valley High is a bit like wearing a red shirt in the original Star Trek, or being a friend of Jessica Fletcher – you really shouldn’t worry about making any long-term plans.
I should also point out that “cheating” in Sweet Valley High means “kissing”. It’s curious that the vampire story originated as a Victorian metaphor for sex, and a hundred years later it serves exactly the same purpose in Kiss Of A Killer. There may be endless kissing but the only penetration taking place is in Jessica‘s neck. The book also features the least believable boys in the history of teen fiction, who never ask the girls to go any further than second base and generally act more like girls than the girls do. It appears that Sweet Valley High takes place in a world without cock.
Where there’s a vampire, there’s an angry mob, and eventually the kids come for Jonathan. Having got them so worked up, Elizabeth suddenly has an inexplicable change of heart. It turns out Jonathan didn’t quite kill one of the minor characters, just left her in a coma, so Elizabeth decides he deserves a second chance and allows him to get away, no doubt to kill again. He’s killed a bunch of people and a kitten already, but most of those were cousins so all is forgiven.
There’s no doubt that the most interesting and believable character is this book is Jonathan, the vampire. He’s the only one who seems capable of thinking about the bigger picture, of the world around him. If only he didn’t eat people he’s probably end up running the Sweet Valley Cinemateque, or working on his one-man show about Kafka for the Sweet Valley Fringe Festival. So, you can live forever, you’re a sexy creature of the night, what do you most want?
Family, he thought, testing the word in his mind. A loving family was something he pined for, what he missed most of all. And what I can never have again, he reminded himself wistfully.
Jonathan desperately wants a nuclear family like the one Jessica and Elizabeth have. Seriously? The guy can live forever and he’s whining he can’t have mac’n’cheese and games night on Thursdays? I wanted to run a million miles from the claustrophobic smugness of the Wakefield clan, and I’m not even undead.
I’d never read a Sweet Valley High book before, and undoubtedly I never will again. I was very impressed how well the books reflected the priorities and beliefs of the target audience, but I was also struck by two things:
The first was that for the “heroes” of a series, the sisters are frustratingly passive. Elizabeth seems incapable of making any decisions for herself, and Jessica is such a damsel-in-distress you wonder if she’s really worth saving.
The second is that the girls are such princesses – perfect bodies, wealthy families, cars and probably even ponies – that they’re hard to identify with. It surprises me the series could have been so successful since the majority of readers would’ve spent high school being taunted by the very types this book reveres. It’s like remaking Heathers with Shannen Doherty as the hero.
There are occasional bright spots, like this unintentionally hilarious moment:
I wish Jonathan were here today, she thought, longing for him. He’d know just how to handle this angry mob.
And the end to chapter nine is quite effective:
A moment later she heard what had startled him. Loud voices were coming from a short distance down the beach. her mind snapped to attention, pushing away the soothing fog. A shiver of fear raced up and down her spine. “Oh, my gosh, what if it’s the murderer?” she cried softly.
Jonathan crawled back into the cave and pulled her close. “I guarantee you,” he whispered in her ear, “it’s not the killer.”
Sadly, Kiss of a Killer is out of print (why? WHY???) but you can still buy these Sweet Valley High books from Amazon UK: Dangerous Love and All Night Long; these titles from Amazon USA: Sweet Valley High #1: Double Love, Sweet Valley High # 2: Secrets, Sweet Valley #3: Playing with Fire (Sweet Valley High); and the television series on R1 NTSC DVD: Sweet Valley High – The Complete First Season.
Previous entries in Great Literature Of The 20th Century: